Sometimes it seems like it’s not enough for a comedy to be funny. 30 Rock is routinely raked over the coals for delivering very funny half-hours of television with little apparent desire to satisfy the dramatic requirements arbitrarily placed on it by know-better critics. Adult Swim is swarming with uniquely hilarious shows, but don’t expect the network to play any part in even the pre-awards-season races for Best Comedy any time soon. Well, I just laughed all the way through “Campaign Reform,” which I suspect was the goal of the episode, and it’s clear that effect isn’t totally arbitrary. It’s not difficult to see how fine-tuned Web Therapy is this week.
For starters, the ensemble of this episode is more grounded than those of the past couple, which might have something to do with most of the characters being established already. I’ve been hesitant to fully embrace Camilla and Maxine because they looked awfully thin, and I want those shots at forces of hate to make direct hits instead of passing through figures of straw. But in “Campaign Reform,” Rosie O’Donnell invests Maxine with humanity in a scene where she’s driven primarily by more universal impulses than broad religious hypocrisy, specifically the desire to one-up a rival that’s prevalent from Breaking Bad to The Real Housewives of the Apocalypse. Passive-aggressive smile-offs are Web Therapy’s stock-in-trade, and the farewell showdown between Fiona and Maxine is a beauty. In fact, Maxine even seems to poke fun at her heretofore prop-based characterization by first appearing in an origami cornette. It’s nice to see her go out on top.
The rest of the cast are seasoned season-one pros, including Julie Claire’s Robin, who is totally transparent—at least from the moment she says she’s a filmmaker—but knows just the right tactic to get into Fiona’s good graces: flattery. Like Fiona, Kip is a figure of shamelessness, only doubly so. On the one hand, good for him not to succumb to any pressure to deny his sexuality, but on the other, he has no apparent principles he won’t sacrifice for power. And Jerome expresses shamelessness in yet another way: lack of dignity. He can’t have shame if he has no dignity. All of these characters have their outlandish moments, but they’re each grounded in basic, recognizable humanity, so the jokes have no niggling strings tugging at your entertainment.
Which brings us to the new guy, Michael McDonald’s campaign manager Ben Tomlund. Beloved television guest star McDonald allays most of my concerns about the direction of this political angle with his restrained exasperation. He’s not a high-powered Emanuel brother. He’s running a Pennsylvania senate campaign, which isn’t small potatoes, but at least it affords McDonald the opportunity to play a campaign manager that’s less salesman and more businessman than television is used to. As for his politics, eventually I’d love to see a Republican political operative on television espouse Republican values, but for an introduction, it was certainly very funny to watch him react to Fiona’s positions. That the politics of Web Therapy are spreading beyond anti-gay satire is another good sign, if only as evidence the show can keep expanding.
Ben, of course, bumps up against the immovable object of Fiona’s ridiculous self-perception. Last week, I talked about the genius of Fiona’s endurance. But it’s not exactly as I stated. She doesn’t really defeat her opponents. She just outlasts them. Maxine plays tug-of-war with Fiona over Austen’s attentions, only accepting Fiona into her sphere of business once she determined that Fiona’s married status meant she was no threat. Now Maxine is headed for Palm Springs with an enormous golden parachute—“Pardon that expression”—and not even a parting glance at Austen. Fiona wins because Maxine changes her goals—and Lisa Kudrow shows us just how thrilled Fiona is with her conquest. It’s the same with Ben. He tries as hard as he can to get Fiona to keep quiet about un-advertisable politics, but he can’t figure out how to say so while maintaining the facade of camaraderie. The trail as usual leads back to self-respect—at the risk of jumping to conclusions, it seems like Ben needs to assert himself and his position more for the good of his life, career, and wellness—but even this kind of softer passive-aggression is a form slightly exacerbated by the telecommunications at the center of Web Therapy. It’s just a little bit harder to be on the same page with a relative stranger through so much mediation.
But Robin does win. She records Fiona confessing private details of her marital troubles. The best part is that Robin bluffs, saying Fiona doesn’t have to tell her anything personal, and Fiona, in fabulous Fiona fashion, says, “It doesn’t matter, I don’t think. You’re not really of any consequence to us at this point” and proceeds to spill the beans. The thing is, Fiona doesn’t lose. She has a flustered moment, but she immediately co-opts Robin into Kip’s campaign (or so it appears; we haven’t yet seen proof of her plan’s success). Her victory is a little conflicted, but Fiona doesn’t personally sacrifice anything, not even dignity, by making Ben hire Robin—although I, for one, am already cringing in expectation of Robin’s sure-to-be-embarrassing campaign documentary—and she doesn’t seem to care enough about Robin to suffer any humiliation at the hands of her (possibly unintended) blackmail. In fact, Fiona stands to gain quite a bit if Robin keeps her tape locked up, and isn’t that what this whole sham is all about?
- “It’s funny how ‘mysterious’ and ‘ridiculous’ are sometimes interchangeable.” In case the subject doesn’t come up again, Web Therapy has taken quite a few shots at the sillier aspects of religion these past three weeks—Maxine on St. Jude: “I can’t tell you how many times he’s helped me find my keys”—but they’re mostly aimed at the public performance of ostensibly personal worship (that, and the aggressive slathering of those ideas over a democracy). At first, that struck me as a totally new tack for the show, but social networks are full of people advertising themselves in ways that are just as petty.
- Another aspect of the chat-window format that I haven’t mentioned—truly this style is so much richer than it seems—is the way people talk over each other, which fits right into the other themes, not to mention Fiona’s whole character.
- And another: the way Kip and Fiona mediate their marriage through the Internet, usually over webcam. In “Campaign Reform,” Fiona’s surprised to hear Kip hired a campaign manager. “Oh you hired Ben Tomlund. I didn’t know. Did I not get an e-mail about that?”
- More screens! This week Fiona plays with a website that shows her what she’d look like with different political hairstyles: The Hillary, The Maggie, The Condoleezza, and The Palin. The gag is great on its own, but as a background and foreground to a conversation with Jerome, who’s less important than this mirror to Fiona, and as a sight gag threaded throughout the vignette, it’s that much funnier.
- The one scene I haven’t really mentioned is Kip’s vignette in the closet, and it’s probably my favorite. Kip hurriedly packing a wig and lingerie for his trip, Fiona finding a pair of boxers—which Kip doesn’t wear—and those reminding her that Trent Bowner donated heavily to the campaign, the gigantic toiletries suitcase (which Kip refers to in the outtakes as his cosmetics bag), just everything in this quick interstitial had me in stitches.
- Jerome gets my favorite joke this week in a beautiful take on the Rule of Three as he runs through Fiona’s schedule: “You’re reading to the schoolchildren at the council for the disabled orphan immigrants.” Fiona, almost on top of him: “Oh, no, I’m not going to do that.”